I fell in love with the Nikon 105mm f/1.4E ED almost immediately the first time I used it. We were in LA shooting a wedding and had rented a couple of things just for fun. The 105 was new but LensRentals had it so I gave it a shot. It hardly left my camera the entire wedding and stayed put through most of Sunday’s Joshua Tree Engagement too. At that point (Oct 2016) there were only a few reviews out. All indications where that it was going to be good and I was not disappointed.
Shortly after returning the rental I pulled the trigger on a purchase along with a new Nikon D810. On my 12MP D3s the rented lens was nearly flawless. I was curious how the 105 would do on the 36mp sensor. I’ve been impressed with it at every turn and with every combination of settings on both the D3s and D810.
Back-light and Flare
One of my first purchases starting out as a photographer was a Nikon 70-200 f/2.8G ED VRII (now deprecated by the new E version – Nikon’s lettering – D then G then E – is weird). That lens was a work horse and one of my favorites, but it was far from perfect. Among it’s flaws is its flare characteristics. Point it even remotely near the sun, even with the hood on, and the image will flare out resulting in lost detail, loss of overall contrast and a muddy image near the light source (the new E version is theoretically much better also). This severely limited its use into strong back-light. Even things like on-white portraits were tricky. You have to get the relative light levels just right or it flares out.
The 105 on the other hand has magically good flare characteristics, even wide open. As a prime, I would expect it to be better than most if not all zooms and it is almost perfect under every situation I’ve tried. Shooting a subject in hard shade with the sun in the frame is not an issue with this lens nor is bright background light, nor are on white photos, even without careful control of the foreground-background contrast. It just works.
Focus, Out of Focus and Sharpness
Sharpness… Well, if you want detailed technical tests see DXOMark’s test(hint: it is crazy sharp even wide open). That isn’t what I’m after here. I’m more interested in how sharp the lens feels in the real world. That is not just about optics. Some of it has to do with usability, in particular how easily and consistently the camera/lens combo nails focus. The focus system on this lens combined with either my D3s or D810 generally does a great job and almost always gets it right (more than I would expect with a telephoto at f/2.0). It focuses quick enough that I almost never notice it. It had no problem grabbing and keeping focus for multiple shots of fast moving BMX riders at the local skate park.
The extra 2 stops of light over the fast pro-zoom lenses means it focuses easier and more assuredly in very low light than a zoom will on the same camera body. This is especially important in very dark situations like wedding reception where we are shooting off camera lights but still have to focus with the nearly non-existent ambient light.
I use single point focus with continuous servo almost exclusively and move the point around as needed. When shooting close (e.g. head and shoulders) and at f/2.0 the depth of field is insanely shallow. Attempts to focus and recompose will almost always fail. Moving a few millimeters (for example you or your subject breathing) is enough to obviously miss focus. If you don’t nail the pupil but instead get the front edge of the eye lid (not even the eye lashes), it is obvious. When shooting across the face instead of square to it, the plane of focus can be seen as a thin band of sharply defined pores, eye lashes and iris. Any super fast telephoto requires very intentional choice of focus and this lens is no exception.
More than it’s technical sharpness, I really like how this lens renders out of focus areas and the transition between in and out of focus. It reminds me of medium or large format images in it’s character. The fall off from sharp to obliterated is smooth and the backgrounds are lovely and creamy. When shooting close, everything in the background is gone, obliterated, smoothed to nearly uniform undulations of color and tone. From a little farther out, it renders dream like painterly backgrounds.
One of the overlooked aspect of lenses is how they handle color. We normally think of color rendering as a function of the sensor, which it also is. But when compared using the same sensor, different lenses handle color in different ways. This is particularly noticeable between zooms and primes but can also be seen in difference models of the same focus length. A great example of this is the difference between the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G and the much older more primitive 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor AI. Side by side, I vastly prefer how the images from the older 50mm lens look and the colors are a large part of this. It’s hard to quantify, and highly subjective.
The same is true of the 105 versus my other lenses in a similar focus length: the 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VRII. The 70-200 is fine and until I owned the 105, I never noticed any problem. Similar scenes, both on the D3s, look better on the 105 straight out of camera with less fuss in post processing. The colors pop more and are rendered in a way that I find more pleasing. I don’t have any side by side images since I haven’t used the 70-200 since getting the 105 but I’ve been shooting the 70-200 for years in many situations. I noticed the difference during the first two days I used the 105. The colors that the 105 produce under almost any lighting conditions are just more pleasing to me.
Way back when, I rented the 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. I hated it, mostly because focusing even with the limiter set for non-macro, was terrible. It hunted and was slow enough that I mostly ended up manually focusing it. That’s a shame because it is a wonderful macro lens for macro. I simply couldn’t afford a dedicated macro only lens and that 105 wasn’t usable for anything else for me.
Fast forward to the new 105. It isn’t a macro, but it works wonderfully with macro extension tubes. If you aren’t aware of macro extension tubes, they decrease your minimum (and maximum) focusing distance by moving the lens away from the sensor. They contain no glass. I’ve used them for a while and they work better on some lenses than others. Until now, my primary go to macro setup was my old 50mm f/1.4 AI lens with extension tubes. Its main drawback is that your working distance is tiny. Bumping your subject with the front of the lens is a real possibility. Not good for living creatures that run away.
The 105 f/1.4 works as well or better than the 50mm and you get much better working distance thanks to the longer focus length. Also because of the longer focus length, a standard set of extension tubes (68mm total) gets you to about 1:1 as opposed to 2:1 on the 50mm. It isn’t a perfect setup (a dedicated purpose built macro will almost certainly work better with less hassle), but is an affordable (both $ and bag space/weight) way to add macro if you have this lens. In any case, make sure your extension tubes have metal lens mounts. A heavy lens like this can break the plastic versions.
If it isn’t obvious, I love the 105mm f/1.4E ED. It is expensive and heavy, but it is also a magical piece of glass. It handled contrast masterfully, focuses fast, renders beautiful out of focus areas and captures colors that I love to look at. If my camera bag disappeared today, this lens would be the first I replaced.
A fellow photographer asked if, since I already had a bag full of pro lenses, did new equipment really make a difference? For some it might not make a difference in that case. For me, it does. A lens like this opens new opportunities and I’m enjoying exploring them. I’ve largely replace the 70-200 f/2.8 in my kit with this lens. It is a magically good portrait lens but is also more than competent for sports and for landscape photos.
The simple answer to the photographer’s question is: yes. Because of this lens I’m making images that I like that I would not have made otherwise.
I shot the example images under real world conditions with clients or collaborators and not for a review. Therefore, I did not do any systematic comparison. I wanted to share my thoughts now that I’ve had the lens for a few months so I pulled images from those shoots.
Neither Nikon nor Lens rentals sponsor me, but I’m a big fan of both. I rented or bought everything myself.
Out of habit, I generally don’t shoot wide open, but one stop down (f/2.0 in this case). That is not a condemnation of the lens at f/1.4 but a pragmatic decision. At f/1.4 the depth of field is almost unusable close up. Only part of the iris of the eye may be in focus, which means it appears that you missed focus or the lens is soft unless you zoom in to 100% and find the band of sharp pixels.
I shot everything in raw and minimally adjusted the images in Capture One 10. Capture One 10 does not have a lens profile for the 105 yet. The images are not corrected for color fringe or distortion. Regardless, I haven’t noticed any of those things regardless of settings. Technical reviews indicate flare, ghosts, coma flare, lateral fringe, and distortion are all almost non-existent in the 105mm f/1.4 even wide open. It is an optical masterpiece.
He is a self taught experiential learner who is addicted to the possibilities that new (to him) gear open up. He loves to share the things he has worked out. Andrew started with a passion for landscape and night photography and quickly branched out to work in just about every form of photography. He is an ex-software developer with extensive experience in the IT realm.